T S Eliot once wrote, “Anxiety is the handmaiden of creativity.” If I didn’t know better, I’d swear he was channeling an evening, far in the future, when Rich Vos was nervously pacing the back of a dark room, awaiting show time. Like a metal spring coiled to its limit and about to unwind, he was both ready to start releasing and nervous about the process. Nine months earlier, when Vos last came to The Comedy Club, his angst read more like anger to me; I felt a very different kind of energy when I met him briefly before that show. His crowd work seemed a little pushy, a little punishing. I wasn’t sure, once the set was over, whether or not I had enjoyed it.
This time, however, was an altogether different experience.
But let’s not start there. Let me give credit to Dario by saying he was an excellent MC, and the perfect guide on the side for this particular show; he primed the audience for Jimmy LeChase. The first/last time I told you about Jimmy, he was working his joke-joke material, funny but more standard-format riffs on weddings. Tonight was a very different show, albeit one I thoroughly enjoyed. Jimmy took us on a stroll through the city, introducing us to the denizens of
in a casually-paced
storyteller style. From the homeless guy who rebuked our agreed-upon social
contract by begging up (You don’t have 43 cents? How about a dollar?) to the
delightful assortment of humanity hanging out at the sketchy local gas station
at 11:13 at night, when his PB & J jones got the better of him, it was an
interesting tour. We met the mumbly guy in the corner complaining about the
price of beer, the old woman in her pjs just holding a loaf of bread as the
Alzheimer glaze spread across her face, the dude repeatedly scratching the same
non-winning lottery tickets and being disappointed that none of them had
magically turned into winners and, my personal favorite, the neglected girl
with the handful of candy (that’s diabetes just waiting to happen!). Crazy
For his peers who tend to operate in a more traditional set-up/punch style, Jimmy can be hard to evaluate. They were listening for those laughter bursts that kinda’ follow one another like firework booms on the Fourth, and Jimmy received a few of them. Mostly, and maybe more appropriate to his style, the audience gave him a quieter but constant chuckle, a steady stream of laughs that showed they, too, knew that late-night stroll.
Tim Almeter's promise to self-immolate at the end of his set was newly spawned. He hadn’t planned a flaming finale. He asked Vos if there was anything he did or didn’t want him to do during the spot. Rich replied, “I don’t give a fuck if you set yourself on fire.” Tim shared the retort with the audience and promised, “So I’m gonna’ close with that.” Alas, no alarms were sounded. Tim delivered a great set, and even gave Vos something to play with in return.
“I had cancer. Waaah! I’m following a cancer comic; I feel like I’m doing a fuckin’ fundraiser. Hey, I had a hernia 3 years ago, you don’t hear me bitchin’.”
I think if that exchange had happened last time I saw Vos, I might not have seen the wink behind it, I might have been tempted to interpret it as a bitch-slap to the young pup for taking a shot. But that’s not what was happening at all. Besides, 26 years sober can carry the same skewed weight as being a cancer comic. It can be lobbed casually into a crowd and played for sympathy. Or, in the hands of someone as skilled as Rich Vos, it can be mined for hard truths and used to produce instant laughter.
The topics bounce between casual commonalities and culture clashes: the costs of driving on the
turnpike (I went four exits, spent $8. You
drive the whole length of the turnpike, at the end they take your car); the
pointlessness of the Occupy movement (They have no demands. They weren’t
protesting, they were camping.); the difficulties of gay interracial dating
(Dad, I’m gay. Now sit down.); the void of service on planes (They took away
pretzels? I didn’t care when they took the blankets – there was more DNA on
them than under Gacey’s porch.); the bond between racism and anti-Semitism in New
should combine forces. With our brains and money, and your strength and speed,
no one could fuck with us.). America
Vos is sharp, his random and extensive callbacks are phenomenal and his quickie lines are a thing of beauty. “’Know what I forgot to did?’ ‘Conjugate a verb? Pay for what’s in your hand? Stop having kids?’” “You look like a Roman nickel. You should be guarding a wall on Game of Thrones.” “Smoking three cigarettes a day is pointless. It’s like going to rape a girl, tearing off her clothes and then fingering her. You’re going to jail, you may as well fuck her.” “You look like an epileptic Marine cut your hair.” “’Do you have turkey burgers?’ ‘We used to.’ ‘Let me sit down, we’ll reminisce about the good ol’ days.’” If you had no understanding of tone or affect, if you couldn’t read body language, you could probably get really pissed off by Rich Vos.
And that’s the saving grace, that’s the best part. Between chewing madly on his Nicorette gum and that pre-show pacing, you can tell Rich’s creativity is fueled by anxiety, not anger; he generally wants to make you laugh, not piss you off. Every now and again, he’ll turn away or drop his head and laugh at himself, at the ridiculousness that just spilled from his lips, and the audience exhales with him, confident once more that he is, indeed, there for the joke. His material about his divorce, remarriage and three daughters is that balanced blend of pathos and punch line. His conversation with his 4-year old (It’s a house? No, it isn’t. It’s just scribble. That’s what you do, you’re a scribbler. Well, answer me this. Would you live in it?) is that thing that looks like reality, but is actually trompe l’oiel: deceiving to the eye or, in this case, the ear.
After the show Thursday night, Mark introduced me to Rich and asked if he’d chat with me a little, told him about the blog. Graciously, and at the expense of some downtime spent savoring one of those turkey burgers, he agreed. He started, though, with a question I’ve heard a number of times over the past year. “No offense, but what makes a person qualified to be a comedy critic?” He seemed genuinely curious, and I wasn’t offended at all. I told him of my passion for the art, my lifelong love affair with comedy; I mentioned that I’ve logged plenty of hours on stages over the years while acting, educating, motivating; I told him he could read the first entry in this blog if he was really interested; and I reassured him that I don’t think of this as critique. Reviewing what I see and sharing how I perceive it, I am trying to support the craft, educate an audience and do my small part to keep live comedy thriving. It was an acceptable answer. He was cool hearing my passion, and spent some time talking about the scene, about his upcoming projects (I can’t wait to see “Women Aren’t Funny”, a documentary he’s produced with wife Bonnie McFarlane), about the fact that he still gets so nervous before a show. He gave me a copy of “Still Empty Inside,” his third CD which you should pick up on iTunes – you will not be disappointed. And for some of my friends at earlier stages in your comedy career, take a look at his website (www.richvos.com). This man has it together on so many levels.
His anxiety isn't just his handmaiden; it's his bitch.
His anxiety isn't just his handmaiden; it's his bitch.